While work on the Longfellow and Anderson bridges is moving forward, plans for repairing and upgrading the in-between River Street and Western Avenue bridges and the messed-up intersections leading to them on both sides of the Charles River have suddenly disappeared from MassDOT’s Accelerated Bridge Program (ABP) agenda. The bridge’s structural deficiencies are still there as are the approach roads’ deficiencies (have you ever tried crossing as a pedestrian in any direction from the DoubleTree?). MassDOT, DCR, consultants, advocates (including the efforts of LivableStreets Alliance’s “Better Bridges” campaign), legislators, and community members have spent years worth of time negotiating, adjusting, and finally agreeing on a plan that would be a huge improvement to both safety and functionality, including physically separated bicycle lanes (“cycle tracks”) and much improved pedestrian crossings especially on the Boston side. Designs are complete, permits are obtained, and contracts are ready to go. But another funding source has not yet been identified. And MassDOT has indicated that, because other projects in the area will cause traffic problems, construction would not be able to begin until after 2019 in any case. Still, despite this worrisome setback, this may be an opportunity to make the plans even better.
The Advocates and Community members’ main focus was on insisting that the new bridge designs include safe and ample facilities for pedestrians and bicyclists as well as smoothing car travel AND that the project extend beyond the bridge edge to include the adjoining intersections and approach roads. Prioritizing the surface-level layout was based on the need to fix problems in already existing facilities. (Which makes one wonder what is being done with the bridges in other parts of the state where there are fewer or no advocates to push for more forward-thinking visions!) However, the Charles River bridge agreements notably left out the idea of further improving non-motorized travel along the river by fixing the remaining seriously deteriorated sections of path along both sides of the river, as well as creating underpasses at each of the bridges – the later an idea that the Charles River Conservancy (CRC) came to champion. The CRC has commissioned technical studies and renderings showing that the underpasses are both technically feasible and would cost relatively little if done at the same time as the bridge repair work.
MassDOT’s original reason for not including the Underpasses was that the many permits needed – from the US Army Corp of Engineers, various Conservation Commissions, and (most problematically) the notoriously uncooperative Mass Historical (preservation) Commission – could not be secured in time for the Accelerated Bridge Project deadline of 2016. Moving the River/Western bridge work out of the ABP removes that scheduling problem.
As part of the negotiations around the Charles River bridges, MassDOT did agree to not repair the bridges in ways that would make the future creation of underpasses impossible. Unfortunately, MassDOT’s official explanation of why work on the River and Western bridges is being delayed claims that ensuring the possibility of an underpass on the Anderson Bridge – coupled with the need to not start on these two bridges until work on the Longfellow and Anderson is complete – is what pushed the completion date too far beyond the ABP 2016 deadline.
It’s likely that adjusting the Anderson plans did make things for complicated. However, rumors are circulating that this is a face-saving obfuscation. If MassDOT had started talking with the Anderson contractor earlier in the process there would have been plenty of time to incorporate the needed changes. According to the rumors, the real reason for delay is that the Mass Historical Commission has insisted that the contractor use a particular type of old-fashion, hand-made brick – and that several (maybe as many as 4) efforts by the only company able to produce these replica artifacts have failed to produce bricks with both the needed appearance and strength for the job. Rather than take on the Historical Commission’s contentious Executive Director and possibly her boss, Secretary of State Galvin, as well, MassDOT is using the underpasses as its covering story.
The worst scenario would be if MassDOT decides to fall back on its old plans to just do the minimal needed safety-related repairs on the bridges themselves. This may prevent additional parts of the bridge facade falling into the water – a non-trivial accomplishment! – but won’t do anything to improve regional transportation. Getting the Charles River bridge work back on track, with the inclusion of both the river-side paths and the underpasses, is what is needed – but making that happen will require a united effort of the broadest possible coalition of agency leaders, advocates, community members and elected officials. Starting now.
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